I want to talk about Alignment. Anyone who’s ever needed a visit to the chiropractor knows that things don’t have to stray very far from center to start causing problems.
In today’s startup community, there’s a lot of talk about rapid growth and how to achieve it. We live in a vibrant time for the web, and the B2C space is exploding with new startups every day. What isn’t talked about as much is how to take care of those users once they’re acquired and how to run the other aspects that take a startup from being a group of talented hackers in search of a business model to a fully formed company, an organization with arms and legs. There’s already a million articles out there that will help you decide if Zendesk, Tender, or one of their competitors will work for you. Tony Hsieh has literally written the book on why great Customer Support will keep your company healthy.
Alignment is about the Golden Rule. Your goal is communicate to your customer that you not only understand their pain, but that it affects you. There’s a reason we sometimes refer to an in-depth customer support call as needing “hand-holding”. It’s because having someone hold your hand feels good, invokes trust, and steadies your feet. People want that feeling, even if you’re just screen-sharing with them.
When I was working in Customer Support, I used to have a poster that hung next to my desk with a famous Steve Jobs quote: “If a user is having a problem, it’s our problem”. I saw that every day and tried to bake that ingredient of genuine concern into every ticket I responded to, and every phone call I answered. If you’ve ever been to an Apple store, it may seem like the company only hires jovial, intelligent, helpful people. A great deal of that is scripted. You should be okay with this. Just as much as customers need totems like their name being used a lot, employees need a backdrop of structure, and a certain level of scripting can bring that. If you trust your people and empower them, they won’t be afraid to go off-book, but someone has to know what the book says to know how much to diverge from it. When I was at Apple, they pushed us through their “Core” training which included a lot of psychology training about how to deal with upset customers and turn experiences around. Phrases like “surprise and delight” were thrown around, but the big thing that stood out to me was the way Apple teaches empathy. Whenever someone was upset, we all knew it wasn’t enough to just tell them we could solve their issue. We first had to go to the source of the pain with them in almost a miniature grieving process. I’m making a big deal about this, but it’s important. Let’s look at some basic principles on how to accomplish this.
I’m heavily borrowing from Apple in these “Three As” of Customer Service.
Acknowledge - Affirm that you understand your customer, assume any blame you deserve, and recognize that there is indeed a problem (angry customers often feel crazy, and can very easily feel judged as being stupid or making a mistake).
Align - Come alongside your customer, letting them know that their problem matters to you and that you are affected by the fact that they are not happy.
Assure - If you know there is a solution, promise the customer they will have it before the interaction is complete. If you don’t know the answer, or it’s a bug you can’t fix right away, promise them that you will do everything in your power to solve the issue AND that you will follow up with them about it either way.
Once, we had a young woman come in who had recently lost her father, and on her iPhone were some voicemails he had left her before he passed away. It was the end of the day, and we had some time, so a couple of us sat with her and listened to her tell us tearful stories about him while we connected her iPhone to a MacBook with a male-male audio cable and starting recording those voicemails into Garageband. By the time her story was done, we had already burned her a CD with the audio files on it and given her back her iPhone. The look on her face told us all that it wasn’t just about having those recordings. It mattered to her why we had done it for her.
So, how can you do this when you’ve got 100 tickets in your support queue and phones to answer, or when you’re busy hacking away at your product, trying to grow it and stamp out the fires that are causing the complaints in the first place? It’s tough. I think more companies should hire someone for support earlier in their life cycles.
Align with your customers and they will align with you. When you have happy customers who are bragging on your behalf about how well taken care of they are, you can save enormous parts of your marketing and sales budgets. You will have customers that are on board with your values and mission because you were on board with them from the beginning. They feel like they are a part of your organization, and that your products have become a part of their lives. This is what drives growth, sales, and both social and financial capital investment.
Beyond the financial benefit, I can also promise you that your life will be easier and happier if you’re answering questions from customers who believe in you to make them happy. It takes time to build this sort of track record, and it can be lost in a moment, so vigilance and consistency are hugely important, but if you can pull it off… you’ll never see your customers as a burden again (been there). Alignment is key.